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Daimler Truck CEO Martin Daum tells it like he sees it

Industry issues from the perspective of the CEO of Daimler Truck

Martin Daum rarely equivocates. The CEO of Daimler Truck sets courses the trucking industry often follows. If you ask him a question, expect a straight answer. We did. And so did he.

When Martin Daum talks …

Martin Daum is one of those people for whom a paraphrase of the famous line from the 1970s TV commercials by investment bank EF Hutton applies. When the CEO of Daimler Truck talks, the global trucking industry listens.

Martin Daum is the influential voice and CEO of Daimler Truck. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

In 2019, Daum declared that Daimler was done with truck platooning, in which two electronically tethered trucks follow each other to save fuel in highway driving. With the exception of autonomous trucking startup Locomation, truck platooning gets little attention today.

At the same time, Daum declared Daimler would skip Level 3 semiautonomous automation. IT was a skippable step on its way to developing driverless truck technology. Try to name a trucking company pursuing Level 3 autonomy outside of China. You can’t.

So, the influence of Daum, who joined the former Daimler-Benz as a management associate in 1987, is keenly felt. He ran Daimler Truck North America from 2009 to 2017. Daum keeps a home in Portland, Oregon, where DTNA is based.

Powertrain pursuits

At the IAA Transportation truck show in Hannover, Germany, earlier this month, Daum declared that his company — split off from Mercedes-Benz passenger vehicles in December — is done with natural gas as an alternative to diesel. 

While interest and orders grow for a 15-liter natural gas-fueled internal combustion engine from Cummins Inc., Daimler is focusing on battery-electric and fuel cell-electric powertrains. Diesel development remains in the mix even as greenhouse gas-reducing regulations globally threaten its future.

“We have to sustain three powertrains,” Daum said in Hannover. “This is for the same amount of trucks [as] in the past. And if you have three instead of one, it gets a little bit dicey financially.”

That’s one reason why Daimler aligned with rival Volvo Group in a 50-50 joint venture to make fuel cells. The math was compelling. For 50% of the cost, Daimler and Volvo together double the market for the hydrogen-powered, zero-emission technology. While Volvo’s market share is about a quarter of Daimler in North America, they compete more closely in Europe and elsewhere.

A pair of 150-kilowatt fuel cell stacks from Daimler Truck-Volvo Group joint venture cellcentric. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

“We spent a considerable amount of money in the last 20 years to build up that [fuel cell] knowledge,” Daum said. “And then we were looking for a partner. It became increasingly nice for them. So they paid a sizable amount of money [$600 million] to us to get 50%, and they committed to pay 50% of any investment from last year forward.”

Moving investment focus away from diesel is why Cummins will build those powertrains for all Daimler medium-duty offerings in coming years. Could a similar decision on heavy-duty engines be coming? Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at Daimler’s dinner with Cummins in Hannover.  

Of cabovers and conventionals

Daum would love to see Europe relax regulations that would allow aerodynamic conventional trucks like those in the U.S. that go as fast as passenger vehicles on the freeways. In Europe, you don’t see the brick-like designed trucks on the autobahn, where speed is unlimited. Trucks are limited to about 56 miles an hour.

That’s why, with the exception of the European Iveco-based battery-electric Nikola Tre, Class 8 cabovers are absent from American roads. 

“Imagine if Iveco would have come to the U.S., nobody would have purchased it,” Daum said. “If you want cabovers in the U.S., you have to limit them to about 50 miles per hour, which is a no-no.”

Class 3-5 cabovers from Isuzu for pickup and delivery in urban areas are an exception. The maneuverability of cabovers makes them ideal for tight spaces and cornering. Nikola pitches those advantages.

“If the U.S. market would change, which I don’t see, to put such a cab on a Freightliner chassis is a piece of cake.”

In fact, Freightliner built the cabover Argosy daycab in the U.S. from 1999 through  2020. From 2006, it was solely exported with some available as gliders in the U.S.

The cabover Freightliner Argosy, built in North Carolina through 2020, is rarely seen on U.S. roads. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

Sorting out autonomy

Understanding the dual relationship strategy between Daimler, its independent subsidiary Torc Robotics and Waymo Via is a bit easier following Daum’s explanation. Dual sourcing is always a good idea in manufacturing. But more is at play in Daimler’s approach.

Daimler’s recent announcement that its autonomy lead, Peter Vaughan Schmidt, will succeed Torc founder Michael Fleming, suggests growing German influence over the independence Torc enjoyed since selling a majority of the company to Daimler in 2019.

“We’ve finished that exploratory step and we’re onto that step to really drive it to launch,” Daum said. That means a strict, comprehensive, systematic and detailed approach. A plan with 400 proof points gets 400 checkmarks, not 350.

“This was always my formula for success in the U.S. You combine German strengths with North American strengths and you get an unbeatable combination.”

And what of Waymo, which is purchasing the same autonomy-ready redundant chassis from Daimler that Torc is working with?

“Freightliner won’t care at the end whether it sells to Daimler or Torc just as Freightliner today does not care from whom it purchases engines: Cummins or Detroit,” Daum said. “We are still one of the most important Cummins customers. And yet the Detroit engine is one of the most important engines as well, so it works.

“I could see fleets buying the chassis from Freightliner and putting half their fleet on Torc for certain routes and the other half on the Waymo virtual driver.”

By the way, Daum is convinced Torc and Waymo are the autonomous trucking leaders. You could not expect him to say otherwise.  

Cold charging

Battery-electric trucks are mostly sold in California today and it will likely remain the leader because of generous purchasing incentives and regulations seeking to rid its roads of polluting diesel trucks. Charging infrastructure trails but is catching up to electric truck demand.

So why is Volvo Trucks North America certifying electric truck dealers in cold and less-friendly battery-electric climes like Roseville, Minnesota?

“Minnesota is a key location to demonstrate the effectiveness and reliability of the battery-electric drivetrain and components in extreme temperatures, including the cold, snow, and ice of the severe Midwest winters,” VTNA President Peter Voorhoeve said in a news release.

Nuss Truck & Equipment’s location in Roseville, Minnesota, is the latest of Volvo Truck North America’s nationwide move to sell and service electric trucks. (Photo: Volvo Trucks North America)

Volvo, which holds an early market share lead in Class 8 electric truck production and sales, is making electric trucks a franchise player. And that means getting dealers ready — at a dealer cost of $150,000 to $300,000 each — to sell and service zero-tailpipe emission Volvo VNR Electric trucks.

Volvo has certified 18 dealers in California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, as well as in Ontario and Quebec, Canada. Another 55 dealerships across North America are in the process of certification in 2022 and 2023.

Wireless charging

The question of electric truck charging isn’t just availability but how long it takes. Wireless charging may be one answer. Ideanomics successfully tested Wireless Advanced Electronic Charging’s 500-kilowatt charger at the Port of Los Angeles, fully charging a Class 8 port drayage truck in 15 minutes.

Wireless charging works best with vehicles moving along a fixed route, such as logistics. Fully automated high-power wireless charging keeps vehicles powered up during regularly scheduled stops. And it allows for smaller batteries and fewer chargers, trimming vehicle weight and cost.

The Department of Energy in 2019 awarded WAVE a $8.4 million grant to develop and deploy high-power, fact-charging technology for electric tractors at the port. WAVE partnered with Cummins, Schneider Electric, Utah State University and Total Transportation Services.

A rendering shows the 15-minute wireless charge of a yard tractor at the Port of LA. (Illustration: Ideanomics)

Briefly noted …

Hyliion Holdings closed its $37 million acquisition of the Karno hydrogen and fuel agnostic capable generator from General Electric. … Automakers and battery manufacturers will spend more than $626 billion globally through 2030 to develop new electric passenger cars and passenger trucks, freight trucks and buses, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. … Startup Xos Trucks delivered 13 of its 100% battery-electric stepvans to four FedEx Ground operators in Kansas, Illinois, California and Kentucky. Los Angeles-based Xos said in August 2021 that it had sold 120 medium-duty trucks to 35 FedEx Ground independent service providers in five states.

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading. Click here to get Truck Tech via email on Fridays.


Alan Adler

Alan Adler is an award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.